Dangers of resilienceCitizens should not have to fend for themselves; the govt has duties that it must fulfill in times of crisis
Once the dominant focus of the media (especially international) finally shifted from the demise of heritage sites to the loss of lives in Nepal following the April 25 earthquake, one image of Nepalis has taken central stage. Despite the innumerable tragedies wreaked upon this nation, ‘resilient’ Nepalis have been tackling the most adverse of conditions in not only stoic, but heroic, manner. This applies not only to the villagers in the most-affected districts, but the waves of Nepalis selflessly volunteering to help themselves and their fellow citizens in this time of national need. As swathes of the country become a terrain of tents, Nepalis stand resiliently strong.
At one level, the emphasis on resilience is positive, highlighting Nepalis as citizens doing their duties. This is not citizen action in the staid terms of paying taxes or voting. These are citizens who are primarily thinking and preoccupied by the wellbeing of fellow citizens. And it is their actions, voluntary as well as paid, that are currently flooding the nation. Stories abound of people who have lost their families and/or homes, helping others in need in their communities, while nationally and internationally, Nepalis raise funds and coordinate relief efforts. In the face of great adversity, the overwhelming determination to survive and rebuild—personally and collectively—lives, communities, and the country, must be admired.
The social contract
However, excessive focus on this Nepali resilience can be dangerous at this time. It mis-directs attention from what should be emphasised—the duties of the government. It should not be up to citizens—however resilient—to fend for themselves in a time of national disaster of historic proportions. The government has duties and obligations that it must fulfill. That is one of the main distinctions between being a subject and citizen—citizens gain more rights and more duties are imposed on democratically-elected rulers. The inability of the government as part of the state to fulfill its part of the social contract must be criticised.
The focus on ‘resilience’ also reinforces the swing in the national narrative to focussing on ‘unity in the time of crisis’, ensuring that the state is not ‘undermined’, or portrayed as being ‘weak’, thus damaging people’s confidence in the government at this crucial time. Such arguments make many assumptions. One is that it assumes a high enough pre-earthquake level of people’s confidence in the government that allows for such debilitating ‘damage’. It also assumes that people’s criticisms do more to undermine faith in the government than, say, the relief grains from Bangladesh rotting in storage for lack of quick delivery or the bureaucratic hurdles preventing the swift dispersal of zinc sheets for basic shelters before the monsoon.
Arguments for repressing dissent and criticism—crucial elements in the functioning of any real democracy—as it impacts the ‘morale’ of government workers, must be rejected outright. It might have made sense when people were subjects in Nepal—lacking rights and living under rules created by non-elected authorities. It has no place in Nepal where citizens and their right to food, shelter, and all other basics are guaranteed in a democratic constitution and the government has clear duties and obligations to deliver these goods and services. The morale of citizens—not the civil servants whose duty it is to serve them—should be our primary concern.
The local and the central
Disparate reports from all over the country reveal government officials at different levels and capacities doing incredible work under the most dire of situations. The work of these officials and the institutions that enable their initiatives should be named and applauded. Reports by Shradha Ghale related to relief distribution work make clear, for example, that the VDC secretary of Dudhpokhari VDC in Dolakha, Chandra Mohan Singh, has been taking exemplary initiatives. That some parts of the government were working for the needs of citizens right from the immediate aftermath of the earthquake should be noted. The fact that most of these were at the local level should be underlined.
This needs to be contrasted with a Foreign Medical Team meeting in Kathmandu five days after the earthquake. At a time when search-and-rescue was key, a leading Nepali official took valuable meeting minutes to stress the need to look after reproductive rights issues as well. Introducing the culture of ‘afno manche’ to new internationals, he explained his enlightenment; a friend called asking him to request international medical teams in the district to check up on his pregnant wife—a request that he obliged. What lives his intervention might have cost were not calculated.
This is part of the culture on which the larger government is built—a culture of selfish behaviour. But this is also a culture which citizens in Nepal post-earthquake have clearly rejected with all their own relief and recovery initiatives; the lives and wellbeing of all fellow citizens count. There are a few reports of discriminatory distribution of goods, but the general movement in terms of citizens’ initiatives has been inclusionary.
But neither the resilience nor interventions of solely Nepali citizens will be adequate. It is, and will be, state initiatives that will be key in addressing the long-term needs of citizens. Yet, only the most optimistic (or foolish) can assume that the government and state will magically transform its feudal culture of functioning overnight because of the earthquake. As in all the post-1990 years, the citizens must hold the state accountable for its actions—or lack thereof. As subjects in the past, Nepalis did what they were told. As citizens today, Nepalis have a duty to hold the government accountable, and the right to be heard.
Tamang is a political scientist based at the research and policy centre, Martin Chautari